Corona lockdown: "We can see new things emerging from the crisis" 

Dr. Hartmann, the 40 employees in the Foundation’s funding department have been working from home for two weeks now. Is everything functioning smoothly?

I can’t say completely without hitch, but overall, relatively smoothly. We were already used to working digitally, and many colleagues have already taken advantage of the opportunity to work from home on individual days. For some time now, applications have also been reaching us in paperless form via the application portal. For example, our colleagues are currently in the midst of processing 270 applications in the "Original – isn’t it?" funding initiative, which then have to be dealt with decentrally according to expertise. But the review process is where we are facing the greatest difficulties.

Why’s that?

The review process can take different forms. For example, a written review in which individual votes are submitted can easily be carried out electronically. This is in line with the digital methods already in use. However, oral assessment can only be carried out with limitations. The usual type of jury meeting with reviewers here in the office is often accompanied by very lively debate on individual applications. In video conferencing, this only works to a limited extent. On top of this, both we and the reviewers often find it necessary to discuss a research proposal in person with the applicant. We attach great importance to this, and these discussions frequently result in surprising outcomes, both in a positive as well as in a negative sense. Such personal presentations – and especially the discussion between all those involved, are not quite the same via video.

So how do you cope in this situation?

For the one thing, everyone involved simply has to accept that under current circumstances the processes and procedures cannot be implemented as usual or as we would consider it to be optimal. Apart from that, we have already shifted a number of deadlines and expert meetings to the second half of 2020. This gives applicants more time to work out their proposals – and we hope to be able to return to our established routines after the summer break at the latest.

How do you process the approvals from the last meeting of the Board of Trustees, which recently – for the first time in the Foundation's history – took place on a purely written basis?

That’s no problem at all. Notification of funding approval can be sent electronically. However, the trustees want further discussion in the case of two of these applications. This should be possible during the next scheduled meeting at the end of June. Due to the exceptional situation, we have therefore had to postpone two decisions, which is quite unusual. On the other hand, it also shows how seriously the Board of Trustees takes its responsibility. And I think that is a very positive signal.

You have remained in the office as a member of the crisis team. How do you communicate with members of your department?

An important channel of communication is the daily conference call with the three team leaders. This lasts about an hour. We talk about day-to-day business and how our colleagues are doing in this unusual situation. But we also discuss what the current crisis could mean for the Foundation’s future activities. 

So what do you think could happen?

Of course, it is still much too early for programmatic statements. At the moment we are only discussing what we observe from day to day: for example, the fact that data on medical research is suddenly being shared very quickly with scientists all over the world. Or that papers on corona are hotly discussed in preprint portals long before they are actually due to appear in the usual high impact journals. It seems to me that we are currently experiencing a situation in which traditional dogmas are simply collapsing in many respects, and this not only affects the most diverse fields of research, but also the structural conditions of the international science system. I am curious to see what is still to come. But it can be said that the developments surrounding corona research are rapidly moving us towards the goal of "open science". We at the Volkswagen Foundation will be observing these developments very closely and will react to them in due course.

How much longer can you cope with this lockdown?

That’s not for me to answer, but rather those colleagues in the department who have small children at home, for example. Coping with the demands of work and family can sometimes be quite exhausting when working from home. I know of a colleague who often can’t start work before ten in the evening, when his six-month and three-year-old children have finally fallen asleep. But it also happens that people working remotely from a home office can feel isolated and shut in, especially if they are single households. Also in such cases, I feel a responsibility to look for solutions together. After all’s said and done, this situation is exceptionally demanding for all of us. And I admit that I am proud of how everyone in the funding department, regardless of their function, is clearly doing their utmost. In this respect, I would say: together we can hold out for a while longer – even though we hope to be able to get back to normal as soon as possible.

Don’t you feel somewhat "left alone" in the otherwise deserted building?

Not left alone. Since the lockdown, I have made more phone calls to colleagues in the department than ever before. And the possibility of video conferencing is also increasingly being used. So there is no lack of exchange and information flow. But having said that: no amount of telephone calls or video conferencing can replace a face-to-face talk. I don't feel left alone, but I do miss my colleagues. I miss them a lot.


Here you will find regularly updated information on how the Volkswagen Foundation is dealing with the corona crisis.